TIT PHOTOS said Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister, working calmly at his desk. “Just another day at the office,” read the accompanying caption, tweeted on February 25. However, outside the doors of his office, there was a pandemonium. The day before, Dr Mahathir had resigned from his post as Prime Minister and leader of Bersatu, one of the parties in the ruling coalition. The king, however, quickly renamed the 94-year-old guard as he and all of Malaysia tried to determine whether one of the various candidates for a new government could hold a majority in parliament.
The drama began with a failed attempt at a parliamentary coup. Bersatu has announced that he will leave the ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan, as well as 11 dissatisfied with another component of the alliance, the Keadilan Rakyat Party (PKR). These rebels had planned to form a government with opposition support, but they were misguided when Dr. Mahathir – whose support appears to be expected by the leaders – resigned.
The chaos stems from a quivering dispute over how long Dr. Mahathir should remain as Prime Minister and who should succeed him. He is an imposing but controversial figure, having been Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 at the head of the United Malaysian National Organization (UM NO), the party in power since independence in 1957 until 2018. Horrified by corruption in the most recent UM NO governments, Dr. Mahathir left the party and created Bersatu. But he only became a candidate for Pakatan Harapan for Prime Minister in the 2018 elections because Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the PKR, a much larger party, was in prison after a lawsuit PKR insisted that he was politically motivated. After winning the election, Dr. Mahathir obtained a pardon for Mr. Anwar and promised to return power to him soon. But gradually, it turned into two years, causing a lot of grunts from Mr. Anwar’s camp.
In addition, rumors have started to circulate that, each time Dr. Mahathir retires, he hoped to be replaced not by Mr. Anwar, but by Azmin Ali, another senior official of the ministry. PKR. It is Mr. Azmin who heads the faction which has separated from PKR this week. But the extent of Dr. Mahathir’s involvement in the breakup, if any, remains a mystery. “Did he change his mind or was his feet cold?” asks a mystified political adviser.
At the heart of this soap opera are both personal and political divisions. Dr. Mahathir and Mr. Anwar have a busy history. Dr. Mahathir sacked Mr. Anwar as his deputy in 1998 after the two clashed over how best to respond to the Asian financial crisis. Mr. Anwar was beaten in prison and later convicted of false charges of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) and corruption. He became a figurehead for those campaigning for reform and led opposition to UM NO between two stays in prison.
This experience led Mr. Anwar to change his ideological position as well as his party. About 69% of Malaysia’s 32 million people are Bumiputra: Malays and other indigenous groups. Another 24% are of Chinese origin and 7% are Indian. Bumiputra tended to support UM NO because he defends and defends policies to stimulate them economically. Bersatu too. Much of the rest of the population does not like the privileges granted to the Malays. The Party of Democratic Action (DAP), another component of Pakatan Harapan, represents Chinese interests. PKR, although chaired by Mr. Anwar, a Malaysian, has members of all of Malaysia’s largest ethnic groups and makes noise about multiculturalism and meritocracy.
The ideological tensions between Pakatan Harapan’s parties worsened when Malaysian voters turned away from the government. This is likely due to a struggling economy, which grew only 3.6% year-on-year in the last quarter of 2019, its slowest pace in a decade. Shortly after the coalition took power, 63% of Malays believed that the country was “going in the right direction,” according to the Merdeka Center, a pollster. In one year, that figure had dropped to 24%. The coalition lost five by-elections to opposition candidates. Claims of UM NO and the other big opposition party, NOT, that Pakatan Harapan neglected Malaysian voters clearly in resonance with the electorate. This, in turn, seems to have alarmed Bersatu and the members PKR.
Dr. Mahathir again presents himself as a unifying figure, who could rise above these internal struggles. “If I am authorized, I will try to form an administration which is not on the side of any party. Only national interests will be prioritized,” he said this week in a televised speech. But it is doubtful that he can re-establish his torn government, since Mr. Anwar has now claimed the post of Prime Minister The remaining parties in Pakatan Harapan seem inclined to rally to Mr. Anwar because they fear that their influence will diminish with a broader coalition led by Dr. Mahathir. In theory, the opposition could try to form a government, with UM NO and NOT like its pillars. But they are well short of the 112 seats required in the 222-member parliament and would probably prefer an early election anyway.
This leaves Mr. Anwar struggling to get enough support from the mercenary parties in Sabah and Sarawak, states of the Malaysian part of Borneo. It could also attract or return to some migrants from Bersatu. PKR rebels. If he does not, however, the consequences are likely to be fatal for his 20-year ambition to become Prime Minister. Voters, already discouraged by the endless feuds within Pakatan Harapan, were probably even less impressed by the rampant horse trade in recent days. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “The Elderly and the Seats”